Catalyst For Change or More of The Same?

by Ted Spear, ​Ph.D.  

MARCH 12, 2021

“Schools are the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need society as it is” 

Ivan Illich

In the December, 2020 issue of ​The Atlantic,​ education author and early childhood educator Erika Christakis wrote a perceptive Dispatches article entitled, ​School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either.​ Sheproposesthatparents’directexposuretotheterrainofcontemporaryschooling--via“Zoom windows and ‘asynchronous classwork’” -- has given them a window into the persistent short-comings of education, even before the pandemic:

Parents are not only seeing how flawed and glitch-ridden remote teaching is--they’re discovering that many of the problems of remote learning are merely exacerbations of problems with in-person schooling.

She offers a number of examples:

   ●  Elementary education that values relatively superficial learning focused on achieving mastery of shallow (but test-friendly) skills unmoored from real content knowledge or critical thinking;

   ●  Short classroom periods, with the majority of instruction conducted indoors;

   ●  Age-stratified classrooms which contribute to competition and stress;

   ●  Mental health problems associated with high-stakes-testing pressure and bullying;

   ●  The abandonment of curricular breadth in favour of stripped-down programs focused on narrow

testing metrics (caused, in part, by the shift in America to high-stakes testing under the No Child

Left Behind Act); and

   ●  Too much emphasis on teacher talk, and not enough on interactive learning grounded in strong


Christakis also wonders why some things have not changed since her own elementary school experience in 1972 (classroom configurations with the same arrangement of desks and cubbies; a school schedule with 35 hours of weekly instruction over 180 days per year) and proposes that those things that ​have​ changed (less face time with teachers, assignments on ipads, a narrowed curriculum) have arguably made things worse. She concludes by suggesting that “the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink schools entirely” and offers a list of things we should be demanding, including a broader and deeper curriculum, more opportunity to learn outdoors, and suspension of state-mandated testing for a year.

Christakis is not alone in exposing the short-comings of contemporary education, and wondering whether the COVID pandemic will provide a window of opportunity to rethink education entirely. Over the past sixty years, there have been a wealth of well-argued books written on the need for educational change. Alfie Kohn, a tenacious educational commentator, has written 14 books alone -- with titles like

The Schools Our Children Deserve​ and ​Schooling Beyond Measure​ -- that analyse and reinforce most of the issues Christakis addresses.

If 60 years of educational critique can’t move the needle on educational change, what makes us think that a “mere” pandemic will alter our approach to how we operate our schools? Why is our education system so difficult to change?

The Heart of the Matter

Toward the end of her article, Christakis points to the tension between the “custodial” versus “educational” function of schools. She describes the custodial function as “warehousing children for the day, feeding them and keeping them safe, so their parents can work” and the educational function as “actually teaching children.” She intimates that schools do a whole lot of the first and not much of the second, and in so doing she points to the crux of the matter: namely, that if we are serious about “rethinking” schools, we need to begin with a determined commitment to redefine -- and perhaps recapture -- their essential purpose.

The fact is that contemporary schools actually serve at least three functions: to warehouse and care for children while their parents work; to formally ​accredit​ students to determine who goes to colleges and universities and who does not; and -- a distant third -- to “teach” students things. Regrettably, what is taught, and why, has long ago lost any coherence or clearly-articulated justification.

So what would it look like to arrange and operate K-12 schools as if education were the primary purpose? The temptation is to move directly into descriptions of various strategies and innovations that we might adopt to make things “better”. But this is to put the cart before the horse.

What is needed first is precisely this determined commitment to redefine what “better” might mean in the context of education, and how (eventually) this reconstituted understanding might link back to a credible defense of K-12 schooling as a public undertaking.

One way to begin is to examine the kinds of implicit purposes within contemporary education that we find troubling. Most of us are not satisfied, for example, with schools understood solely as “child care” centres (as Christakis later describes them), no matter how much well-intentioned caring goes on within them.

The claim about the problematic nature of schools as institutions of formal accreditation might take a bit more to unpack. After all, this is almost universally assumed to be a fundamental element of K-12 schooling. But we need to challenge this assumption on two counts: first, that the student assessment system we use to generate high school transcripts actually corrupts much of the teaching and learning that goes on in schools; and second, that we have good reasons to ask why ​K-12​ ​education ​should function as the high-stakes pre-selection mechanism that effectively determines the prospective futures of our students in the first place.

It has been long understood by teachers and researchers alike that much of what we do in the way of testing, marking, and grading in schools is counter-productive to educating students in any meaningful sense. How so?

   ●  Schools with an intensive regime of testing, marking, and grading -- i.e. all schools -- inevitably narrow, fragment, and trivialize the curriculum. Poetry gets reduced to correctly distinguishing metaphors from similes, and teachers “teach to tests” that too often throw out the most interesting and compelling elements of a field of inquiry because these can’t be measured.

   ●  Students learn to play the game by cramming for high-stakes tests and exams and then immediately discounting the importance of everything they “learned”. It is commonplace for them to burn their class notes and sell off their textbooks at the end of term.

   ●  The relationship between teachers and students is strained and sometimes fundamentally dishonest. Students conceal from teachers how little they know and will sometimes “cheat” if the opportunity presents itself. Teachers serve as high-stakes gate-keepers knowing full well that the assessments they make of students do not come anywhere close to capturing the actual interests and abilities of their students. Ask any teacher working in the trenches whether they think the time spent on student assessment might be better spent on enhanced teaching and learning support.

Again, all of this has been long understood, with countless books written on the subject. (Todd’s Rose’s The End of Average,​ for example, offers a stunning contemporary critique of our ill-advised fixation on quantitative measurement.)

The more interesting question to ask is why we think that it is ​appropriate ​for K-12 education to serve as the de facto pre-selection mechanism to determine who goes to what kinds of colleges and universities and who will be stacking boxes in warehouses. It makes sense, doesn’t it, for schools to help identify the budding engineers and heart surgeons to make sure the bridges don’t collapse and the patients survive their operations? Right?

Wrong. On three counts.

First, as countless educational practitioners already know, the assessment practices that schools use to rank and sort students systematically -- and ironically -- erode the quality of the education they receive. University instructors and workplace supervisors have long complained about having to correct the mistakes and rectify the omissions of high school education.

Second, the assessment system that schools use is incapable of accurately identifying the qualities needed for ​any​ post-secondary pursuit -- even stacking boxes in warehouses. The best that schools can produce is a false proxy in the form of a high school transcript that, again, doesn’t come close to identifying a student’s actual interests and abilities.

Third, the very assumption that K-12 education should, ​in any way,​ serve as a pre-selection mechanism is suspect for the simple reason that K-12 education is compulsory, whereas post-secondary pursuits -- including attendance at a college or university -- are voluntary. It is one thing for a nation to generate a defensible justification for compelling its citizens to attend school; it is quite another for an individual to determine what they want to do in their lives.

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Christakis describes the educational function of schools as “actually teaching children”, but we can legitimately ask, “teaching children what, and most importantly, for what purpose?”

The implicit answer is that schools must teach students how -- and where -- to fit within the current industrial economy. When advocates proclaim, for example, that “schools must teach students 21st century learning skills to enable them (and the nation) to compete in a global economy”, they are simply bringing to the surface the underlying link between contemporary schooling and the political economy of our time.

But is this the underlying rationale for compulsory K-12 education that we want to uphold and defend? Are there not other, deeper and richer, rationales that might speak more directly to the true potential of public education?​ ​I think there are. I think that our job as K-12 educators is not to prepare and pre-select individuals for the job market but instead to help ​equip and inspire students to cultivate their humanity,​ so when the time comes to make their way in the world, they will do so with a strong foundation.


But what -- beyond a rhetorical flourish -- am I really talking about here?

The project of “cultivating our humanity” is based, in part, on the classical concept of a liberal education. The central idea is that human beings have certain capacities -- including the ability to reason; to see things from a moral point of view; to be expressive and creative; to be intentional about our physicality; to appreciate art, music, and literature; to consider narratives bigger than our own lives; and to think about our thinking -- and that we exercise and express our humanity by developing these powers to the best of our ability. But cultivating our humanity is also about a second, more contemporary, idea: that we exercise and express our individual humanity by discovering and developing our own distinctive interests and abilities -- that is, our particular “calling”.

To help ​equip and inspire​ students to cultivate their humanity in this two-fold sense is a profound undertaking. It requires that we give them the tools they need -- including the ability to read, write, perform basic mathematical operations, and recognize falsehoods when they appear -- so they can be authors of their own stories instead of mere characters manipulated by others. It requires that we familiarize them with some of the great conversations of human inquiry -- in science, mathematics, philosophy, history, the arts, and religion -- so they have some exposure to ideas and narratives bigger than themselves, and so they are not breathtakingly ignorant about the triumphs and disasters of the human story. And, perhaps most importantly, it requires that we arrange things so that students come to discover and develop their unique set of interests and abilities and are thereby inspired to make their own distinctive contribution to the betterment of their community, however that comes to be defined.

There is a particular progression here that begins with helping students to acquire those “emancipatory competencies” -- the knowledge and skills -- that will free them to interpret and engage the world without being hoodwinked by others. Teaching students to read, communicate and understand numerical relations is paramount, but so too is introducing students to the rudiments of argument, the foundations of moral reasoning, and strategies to identify falsehoods. Back in 1969, educational authors Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner called this “crap detecting”. Given the debilitating power of social media echo chambers in today’s world, there are good reasons to believe we now need this more than ever.


We then need to expose students to those great conversations of human inquiry. This is not to prepare them to become scientists or poets -- colleges and universities can do that -- but instead to give them an initial sense of how scientists and poets think, and how their explorations represent distinctive ways to understand and interpret the world. The best way to do this is through stories -- lots of stories -- about the remarkable accomplishments and horrific failures that define our history and shape our possible futures. We have a responsibility to expose students to people and ways of thinking they might not otherwise encounter, so they might gain a broader repertoire of possibility from which to fashion a life.

And most importantly, we need to re-engineer schools --- particularly high schools -- to encourage and enable students to discover and develop their own interests and abilities. The default right now is that high school students take a series of mandatory courses -- with some electives -- within the confines of a prescribed curriculum to generate enough “credits” to graduate. More often than not, most of these courses are of marginal interest to the student, but they persevere through them because they have learned the game of high school completion. The result is that they are left with three years of a mostly forgettable educational experience and no idea -- or passion -- about what they want to do next.

At a Canadian middle school I founded and directed, we required our fourteen-year-old grade 9 students to complete a “Masterworks” project as a requirement of graduation. The students selected a topic of personal interest, researched the subject over six months with the help of an external Advisory Committee, wrote a 15-25 page treatment of their project, and then publicly presented their work in June. The topics they selected were incredibly wide-ranging -- from rebuilding motorcycles to an examination of string theory -- and audiences were typically surprised by the sophistication and depth of the final presentations. More than a few of the students who completed those Masterworks projects in grade 9 went on to pursue the same area of interest in their later lives.

We need more of this -- much more of this -- in high school. We need, in particular, an infrastructure that systematically builds in more and more opportunities for students to ask their own questions, define their own interests, and then develop their abilities to pursue them with the support of the educators around them. A good deal of school consists of telling students what they must learn, and some of this is justifiable because when we are young, we literally do not know what we do not know. But there comes a time when we need to recognize students as having interests and abilities of their own. If we have done a good job of equipping and inspiring them in the primary and middle years, then we should embrace and support the questions and pursuits they want to explore in high school. If we do so, there is a good chance that they will graduate from grade 12 with a much stronger sense of who they are, what they are interested in, and what they think they can accomplish.

It is worth pointing out that none of this requires the rigid, antiquated, and educationally destructive student assessment system that we currently use. It ​does​ require a far more nuanced approach that deploys different strategies for different purposes. If we are serious, for example, about teaching students to read, write and think as emancipatory competencies then we need to double down on the kinds of evaluations that will enable us to do this well. These will ​not​ be individual assessments of student achievement, but instead will be ​program​ evaluations that tell us which methodologies -- for which kinds of students -- are most effective in enabling them to acquire the kinds of baseline literacies that free a person from external manipulation.

When we are exposing students to the great conversations of human inquiry, it is not necessary to have them memorize historical dates or a parrot back particular “key” elements. Our obligation as educators is to present them with these stories in the most compelling fashion we can, and allow them to draw their own conclusions. In educational undertakings like this, we will know we are on the right track by the quality of our conversations with students, rather than the distributions in our mark books.

And finally, how do we best capture and present the myriad interests, abilities and accomplishments of high school students completing a series of evermore ambitious individual and collaborative projects? In my view, the short answer is, “portfolios”. But, in this case, ​highly-sophisticated​ portfolios that carefully tag different elements of a student’s interests and demonstrated abilities, so that prospective colleges and workplaces alike can get a better match between student potential and post-secondary opportunities. We have the ability to do this now; we just need to be open to a deeper and broader description of human capacity.

What most parents want for their children -- and what most nations want for their citizens -- is a particular kind of happiness. It begins with the happiness of safety, security, and self-confidence, but extends beyond the mere acquisition of material goods or the pleasure of instant gratification. It includes health, friendship, love, purpose, and the fulfillment of discovering and developing one’s abilities and passions in the context of a life well-lived.

Schools can, and should, help underwrite this deeper version of “the pursuit of happiness”. By helping students acquire emancipatory competencies, and by intentionally broadening their horizons, they can give students a strong foundation to discover and develop their own unique interests and abilities. Instead of disenfranchising whole populations of individuals who fall outside an institutionally narrow definition of “success”, they can encourage and embrace multiple expressions of human accomplishment. In doing so, they can avoid the colossal waste of directing students toward uninspiring and artificial versions of themselves and contribute instead to a new and different kind of prosperity -- call it deep prosperity -- where individuals are doing what they were meant to do, all within a broader understanding of their concomitant responsibilities.

So Erika Christakis is right to ask whether the shortcomings of education revealed during the pandemic might create an opportunity for us to rethink schools. I wonder about that as well. But I also wonder why 60 years of educational critique has not really changed things much. And I am nervous that we are simply going to put old wine into new bottles by using new strategies and technologies to essentially reproduce the same patterns and purposes of the last five decades.

I believe that the heart of the matter is that we have aimed far too low in our aspirations for public education, and that our lack of imagination here has kept us back from realizing the full potential of purpose-driven schools. That said, I know there are millions of teachers, parents and educational leaders out there who want the best for this next generation of students. I only hope we will have the courage and tenacity to take up Christakis’s invitation and reimagine a deeper, richer, and better version of what education could be.

Ted Spear is the founding principal of two schools, and the author of Education Reimagined: The Schools Our Children Need. He lives with his wife in British Columbia, Canada.